Thursday, June 30, 2011

In The Studio: Grand Lake

Grand Lake at The Fillmore in 2010, from the HAD Archive

This spring, Grand Lake released Leaves Ellipse, the follow up to 2010's much lauded Blood Sea Dream, both on Hippies Are Dead Records. The record featured something of a sonic departure for the band, with more of an emphasis on acoustic instrumentation and vocal harmonies. After a few successful west coast dates, the band are back in the studio, recording a second EP tentatively titled Spent Woods, that's due later this year.

Being their label of choice (quite happily, we might add), we had the pleasure of stopping in at the studio and talking with lead singer Caleb Nichols about what the band has been up to!

Leaves Ellipse took the band in a new direction, with loads of harmonies, acoustic playing, and sonic experiments. Has that sound continued with the new material, or have you found a new direction to head in?

The new EP should be listened to as the second part of a larger whole - Leaves Ellipse I think of as 'Side A' and Spent Woods I think of as 'Side B'. This batch of songs is similar in structure, but we've brought Jameson back in, this time playing finger picked resonator guitar and I think the songs as a whole are a bit darker. We also approached the recording process differently - we still recorded at home, but we tracked a ton of the songs on a Tascam 4-track cassette recorder. I wouldn't call this 'lo-fi' but I might call it 'lo-tech'... or something.

Do you feel like using the Tascam has forced you into some creative corners? Are you doing multiple instruments per track, or bouncing?

Definitely - we have to make decisions about mixing early, and having only 4 tracks limits us considerably. We bounce stuff, yeah.

The Grand Lake lineup seems to be always-changing: what's it looking like for the new record?

On the new record I play guitar, Jameson Swanagon plays finger-picked resonator guitar, Josh Barnhart plays drums and John Pomeroy plays bass. We all take turns playing various percussion instruments throughout.

You played with Josh in Port O'Brien - was the reunion smooth sailing? Is it odd having someone else be the bass to his drums?

Smooth sailing - we've played together in bands since 2004 - actually, Jameson Josh and I were in another band together before we joined Port O'Brien. It was called the Bloody Heads. It was rad folk-punk violent femmes-ish fun.

You've fluctuated between bass and guitar - any new instruments for you on this record?

Hmmm. I'm playing guitar mostly now. I track some of the bass and sing of course - which now involves some looping. I also play a box full of trash on one track.

What exactly does a box of trash sound like?

Just like you'd think.

How has being outside of the city affected your writing style?

I'm digging a little deeper, maybe because there are less distractions here. The town John and I live in is population 15,000 - there's a dive bar (wiki search 'dive bar' and I'm not kidding, a photo of this bar will pop up), grocery stores, a couple of books shops - but really, you know, not much going on. And that's the point - staying in with the cat, and playing guitar.

How has the crowd reaction been to the material from Leaves Ellipse? Are the songs different sonically in a live environment?

Pretty positive - when we opened for Rogue Wave at the Great American in SF there were people in the front row singing along to 'City Leaves' - first time that's happened!

I think what we're doing live is pretty close to what we've been recording.

Have the influences on this record changed at all? What are you listening to these days?

With 'Blood Sea Dream' we had more of a collaboration happening - everyone's influences were kind of thrown into the soup. John digs Frog Eyes and Sunset Rubdown, Jameson and I were deep into Pixies worship, Spoon and later-period Modest Mouse were major influences. We were trying to make big-sounding rock music.

With the last EP and this new one, we've dug into a different set of influences - earlier ones for me - M. Ward, early Modest Mouse, Little Wings, the Microphones. During recording my two jams were Paul McCartney 'McCartney' and Deerhunter's 'Halcyon Digest'. I can't get enough of those two. Also, M. Ward's 'the End of Amnesia' record is a guiding light - so much amazing stuff happens in that record.

You've espoused a DIY recording vibe as of late. What sort of gear are you using? Any surprises or disappointments from certain attempts?

Everything we've done in 2011 has been home recorded - we use Josh's macbook, 1 condenser mic and 1 sm58. Lately we've been using my friend Zak's Tascam 4 track cassette recorded. There's a couple of things I like about recording at home vs. a studio - I like to not be rushed at all. I work really fast - generally I know what I'm going to do before we start - but I like to be able to take a spontaneous idea and really just go for it, without the pressure of time/money concerns. The other thing I like are the limitations - its great to be forced to be creative, and to make decisions. With the 4 track, there's not much room to do an infinite number of tracks - you have to decided what stays and what doesn't early in the process - and you also have to kind of mix as you go. This can make rad things happen - but yeah, also, you can think you're done, listen back and go 'fuck - this is awful' and have to start completely from scratch. Its more of an adventure!

You spend a lot of time contributing to other musicians work as well as your own. Do the two affect each other?

When I play with other people I usually play bass - I guess I bring my own style of playing to other people's projects - and you know, of course every player changes the landscape. Everyone in the band has other projects going on - and I think it just makes us all better musicians generally.

When mixing your own material do you ever pull in outside ears?

Yeah. If I mixed on my own I'd never be done, and it would sound bad. Seriously. On 'Blood Sea Dream' we all had a hand in it, and Jason Kick of Maus Haus mixed and co-produced. On 'Leaves Ellipse' Josh Barnhart and I did the mixing, and on 'Spent Woods' Josh and myself did some, and Zak McLongstreet, a friend who lives up the street recorded and mixed a ton on the 4 track.

Do you favor studio monitors for mixing, or a more pedestrian sound setup?

We use the speakers we listen yo records on, a pair of semi decent Sony boxes. And we monitor with cheap headphones.

This will be your second EP this year. Does the shorter format affect your writing style?

It helps me focus. With a 5 song EP I can keep my focus - I have trouble focusing on 12 or 20 songs at a time. I don't know why. Actually, I usually write songs in batches of 7.

There are a ton of covers in the Grand Lake catalogue. How does that come about? Is it a fun rehearsal activity, or more calculated than that?

Hmmm - it's mostly fun - I used to be afraid of covering songs - until 2009 we didnt do it at all. Then I kind of popped my cover cherry (that's disgusting-sounding ... Sorry) and haven't looked back. We're def trying to cover our big influences. It's a blast.

What do you have to say to current grand lake fans about the new record? What excites you most about the new material?

Here is what I have to say: Somewhere on the record we sampled a very famous artist. If you can figure out who the artist is, and what record we sampled, you get lifetime free Grand Lake merch.